Customer Experience

Headless Commerce: How It Will Change Online Sales

Alex Husar

Alex Husar 11 min read

Web development is progressing by the month. There are so many trends that are currently on the rise, namely: cloud computing, artificial intelligence, big data, IoT, hyper-automation, no-coding/low-coding development, and so on.

So it’s no surprise that the question of “Where will we be a decade from now from the technological perspective?” is highly debated.

For instance, let’s bring up eCommerce. Not everyone uses solely desktop computers to make purchases anymore. Instead, we tend to utilize our mobile devices, enjoying the perks of image search, easier payments with fingerprint or FaceID, and other handy features.

Meanwhile, our homes are surrounded by “smart everything”: watches, speakers, fridges, etc. And the number of such helpful devices will only grow. Are all websites, including eCommerce ones, capable of interacting with this extensive list of devices? Definitely not. At least yet.

Online merchants analyze recent trends and more and more of them turn to a headless commerce solution. Let’s look at the headless commerce definition, its difference from a traditional web architecture, as well as its benefits and drawbacks.

Headless Commerce vs. Monolithic Website

Defining the Frontend and the Backend

Before proceeding to monolithic and headless comparison, let’s define the key terms of frontend and backend. The backend is a collection of databases and commerce features to ensure customers get what they want. The backend of every online shopping platform consists of:

  • product images;

  • customer information;

  • prices;

  • to name a few.

The frontend is the content representation on various devices, such as computers, smartphones, self-help kiosks, voice assistants, AI chatbots, and others. It’s what clients see. It’s the digital interface, allowing users to interact with backend features:

  • browsing the product catalog;

  • replenishing the wish list;

  • adding products to the cart, and so forth.

The Difference Between Monolithic and Headless Architecture

It all started with a desktop computer. Online store owners rolled out their websites and didn’t have to cover other channels as there were none. Such websites were monolithic, meaning the frontend and backend are interlinked.

Now, these are almost all stores you can access on the Internet. Everything works in a single environment. There’s little freedom to tweak the frontend parts without making changes on the backend.

The headless commerce approach rethinks such an architecture. Mobile shopping is booming, and shoppers are becoming more demanding of stores in terms of speed and UI/UX. They explore other channels to shop, such as voice assistants like Alexa, watches, or smart refrigerators. The winner of this race is the entrepreneur who ensures a seamless shopping experience through all these channels (“heads”).

Being headless entails the frontend-backend separation, giving you leverages to tailor the website to your needs. The backend communicates with the frontend with the help of APIs (e.g., GraphQL). And the frontend is built on modern frameworks such as ReactJS or AngularJS.

You get a flexible online store with a lightning-fast page load and limitless customization by switching to headless. Headless streamlines the website performance optimization. The same is true about pushing the boundaries of pre-made tools and layouts and building unique solutions.

The strategy can also protect against the frontend negatively affecting the backend (or vice versa) which distinguishes them from monolithic solutions. As a result, developers don’t have to switch between frontend and backend. They may change the two website components independently.

A headless website may have a monolithic backend, which is the first step of developing such websites. But the backend may also consist of microservices. It means that backend assets, such as search, cart, wishlist, and others, exist separately.

For example, you can have various databases for microservices instead of the one-size-fits-all approach. You can change and scale them to different degrees without affecting one another or causing data chaos.

Progressive Web Apps as a Website Transformation Variant

What if you aren’t planning to expand your site to other touchpoints right now? If an optimized website version is enough for you, you can convert your website into a PWA. It looks like a native app with all the UX/UI benefits, but you stay in the browser.

It’s a website transformation that involves moving towards a headless solution (with backend and frontend separated and communicating via API). It makes it easier to connect other frontends to your backend later.

PWAs can send push notifications, load fast (thanks to modern frameworks like ReactJS), and don’t require allocated space in the phone memory. You just install a shortcut on the home screen as a lightweight link.

On the other hand, PWAs can replace traditional apps for your business. So you don’t have to waste your time creating separate apps for iOS/Android and encourage visitors to download them. Instead, you can focus on web optimization and promote your goods, not an app.

Monolithic Websites: What You Should Be Aware Of

1. Noncompetitive Performance

The idea behind monolithic and headless stores is where the code is rendered: on the client-side or the server-side. If you browse a traditional website, you receive a separate HTML document each time you go to the new page. The backend generates the frontend.

And that’s where you meet the first roadblock. Such websites are slower on mobiles.

You may not see the difference, but slower speed will affect Core Web Vitals and the website’s ranking as a result. Coupled with ineffective store optimization, it adds extra hundreds of milliseconds to fetching the content. People have to wait more time, which spoils the user experience, increasing bounce rate and dissatisfaction.

2. Problems with Maintaining Numerous Frontends

Another reason to criticize the monolithic approach is the difficulty of ensuring a flawless UX/UI on different touchpoints. Even the most convenient desktop website may look poorly on mobiles, not to mention other modern devices.

Suppose you want to roll out an online store to be displayed on TVs. Speaking of monolithic websites, you can create a separate design for the touchpoint, but it needs to support HTML. If not, you’ll have to create a custom API for this device to transmit data. Theoretically, you can create numerous frontends, but it’ll be harder to support them.

3. Sluggish Maintenance, Customization, and Development

A monolithic architecture involves various restrictions, which is time-consuming for developers. Let’s assume you need to change some content blocks in the frontend. This case may require introducing changes to the backend. 

As a result, the glued frontend and backend complicate customization as you have to cross-check. It’s needed to include the tag in the HTML document, returning from the backend. It hampers the release speed, so your business will lose potential revenue or fall behind with the introduction of new features.

4. Scalability Restrictions

What if you already have a monolithic website? The future may require scaling the company so that your business can handle thousands of orders, store customer data, and expand the product line. These changes are more challenging with the traditional solution. Sooner or later, assistive solutions in your code won’t be enough, and you’ll have to rebuild the website. So why not prepare the online retail business for traffic growth before it’s too late?

5 Ways Headless Commerce Benefits Online Merchants

1. Enhanced Customer Experience

Customers don’t stick to particular wants and needs for ages. Their interests may change abruptly, as the pandemic has proved. That’s why your services should be adaptable to these uncertainties.

Statistics prove that personalized experiences encourage 80% of consumers to buy. Furthermore, 40% are ready to pay more thanks to the extra convenience.

Your eCommerce solution’s backend already includes information about your visitors and past transactions. With a headless eCommerce solution, you can use that information to provide more tailored shopping experiences to engage customers and increase sales.

How does headless enhance UX/UI? As developers craft separate frontends for different devices, they consider all the peculiarities of the type. For example, the mobile interface should convert visitors browsing the store on the go:

  1. The buttons should be convenient to tap with one hand, and the critical ones (such as the cart, search, profile page) should be reachable by a thumb.

  2. Arrange elements to make the most of limited mobile screen space (minimalistic design, placing the most important assets instead of distracting the visitors from moving through the sales funnel).

Keep a balance between font and image sizes. They should be large enough not to zoom in and small enough not to exceed the screen size.

2. Outpacing Competitors

A headless eCommerce platform provides room for rapid changes to your website, which are necessary for functionality, security, and a superior customer service experience.

For example, you may initiate a loyalty program on the online store faster. And you don’t need to change the backend, provided the existing out-of-the-box solution meets your requirements. In the meantime, major eCommerce companies operating on traditional platforms might face disruptions due to the introduced changes.

3. Support Omnichannel 

Headless commerce is all about cross-channel interaction. This approach will save you expenses in the future and drive sales. According to data, the omnichannel strategy increases customer retention by 90%.

This tendency shows no sign of slowing down due to the rapid growth of the Internet of Things (IoT). Smart wearables, household appliances, and other electronic devices make our lives easier today and may allow us to shop right on the spot tomorrow. So you’ll need a flexible solution to cater to their needs. Headless commerce makes it true.

4. Speedier Websites

Since a store doesn’t download the HTML document each time (after the initial interaction there are only queries for data as a user goes from page to page), the loading speed increases. Also, the split takes some of the load off the backend. The frontend renders the content, and API requests speed up the interaction, even more, allowing you to update the page components without renewing the whole page.

5. Integration Without a Hitch

APIs are the drivers of headless eCommerce solutions. It results in easier integration with new and current systems compared to other solutions. For example, it applies to connecting a headless eCommerce website with marketing automation systems such as a CRM.

APIs are the pillars of fast and efficient data transfer. And you don’t need modifications after establishing the initial connection.

Possible Roadblocks Associated with Migrating to Headless

Don’t wait for a fast and smooth transition if you decide to step on the headless path. This step requires splitting a store’s backend from the frontend, taking many developers’ hours. It applies to transforming an existing store or building a headless website from scratch.

Headless commerce is an unparalleled solution for a large enterprise. It adapts to your needs, but it will take time and money. Being on the market for some time, you probably have a monolithic store. Suppose it’s highly customized. Then, the transition becomes harder.

Headless commerce aims to cover various touchpoints and ensure a positive customer experience across them. But you need to create UX/UI designs for multiple screens. It implies the need for designers due to the lack of frontend designs for the needed devices. The backend is universal, the codebase remains. However, the designer has to determine how the page elements should be laid out for the best usability.

As you can see, building or restructuring the website for headless commerce requires time, effort, designers, developers, and money. But in return, you get a flexible website that will pay off in the short and long run.

Wrapping Up

We can already see the huge shift towards enhancing user experience. New devices that people utilize daily are continuously emerging, and the pace of life is becoming faster. Every second of a user’s time counts. Thus, we can assume that technologies and solutions for accelerating performance, boosting user experience, and personalizing the interaction will most likely develop further.

The same applies to simplifying many ongoing processes. Therefore, I hypothesize that in 2022 and beyond, the shift to more agile solutions will continue. For example, online retail sites will prioritize moving to a headless architecture or progressive web applications as a headless variant to have the chance to link up various multiple frontends to a split backend.